It happens to everybody from time to time. You’re dating somebody and you’re suddenly struck with the thought that they’re cheating on you. Maybe you find yourself questioning whether or not you really found “the one.” Or perhaps you realized that your partner’s laugh is, well … a bit grating. They’re uncomfortable thoughts, but they pass. You go on about your day.
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People living with relationship obsessive-compulsive disorder (ROCD) live in those uncomfortable moments, magnifying and replaying them over and over. Those doubts, insecurities and criticisms are enough to shake even the firmest partnership at its foundation.
It’s important to note that ROCD is not, itself, a diagnosable mental health disorder. It’s easier to think of it as a manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). “I have seen the term appear a lot in social media and the news. It’s now gaining attention in research,” says psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD. “It is a helpful term to use. Giving it a name — particularly for partners and for individuals who are struggling with it — makes it easier to understand.”
The good news is, it’s treatable. And getting help could make your relationship better than it’s ever been. We talked to Dr. Albers about what ROCD is, why it happens and how to cope with the symptoms.
What is relationship OCD?
ROCD is a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). People living with OCD experience frequent unwanted and intrusive thoughts (that’s the obsessive part) that compel them to perform repetitive behaviors. For example, if somebody can’t shake the thought that they’re unsafe in their own home, they may repeatedly lock and unlock the door, just to be sure.
For many people with OCD, these repetitive thoughts and actions can become debilitating.
In ROCD, the thoughts — and resulting repetitive actions — are specific to their romantic relationship. For example, somebody struggling with an intrusive thought like “X doesn’t really love me,” may ask their partner to reaffirm their feelings multiple times a day. “It’s normal to have some questions about a relationship — to sometimes have some fears or anxieties,” Dr. Albers notes. “But this really crosses over into being unable to work through it. You get very stuck in your thoughts.”
“ROCD can be really toxic and damaging to relationships, particularly when you’re with someone that you really care about,” she adds. “It really does impact a person’s day-to-day functioning. They can become paralyzed by these intrusive thoughts, which can be very overwhelming and distressing.”
Dr. Albers continues, “At the baseline of the relationship, that safety and security doesn’t feel like it’s there — there’s this constant questioning. It means you can’t relax, enjoy and sink into the relationship. It’s difficult to live with and it’s difficult on the partner, too.”
What triggers relationship OCD?
Relationship OCD isn’t usually the first sign of a mental health concern and almost never happens in isolation. In other words: This isn’t something that can happen to anybody for any reason.
“There’s usually a predisposition to a mental health disorder, maybe a different form of OCD,” Dr. Albers explains. She also notes that ROCD can emerge in response to trauma.
“That’s the hard part. We’re often taught to listen to our gut. And your gut is telling you these confusing and questioning thoughts 24/7. It’s hard to know whether these are real concerns or if it’s the OCD talking.”
Signs and symptoms of relationship OCD
We all experience doubts, anxieties and “wobbles” in our relationships from time to time. For people with relationship OCD, these experiences are magnified. So magnified that they impact the way they live their life and conduct their relationship. Here are some signs of ROCD to be on the lookout for:
Repetitive thoughts and anxieties
Below are a few examples of the sorts of thoughts a person with ROCD can get stuck on:
- Do I really love my partner/this relationship? Do they really love me/our relationship?
- Am I making a mistake being with my partner?
- Shouldn’t I feel X, Y or Z?
- If we break up, it will destroy me.
- I don’t like X about my partner.
- I feel attracted to somebody who isn’t my partner. Does that mean I don’t love them?
- How does my relationship compare to X’s relationship?
- Is my partner cheating on me?
- Should I break up with my partner?
People with ROCD may also find themselves fixated on something that’s “wrong” with their partner or their relationship. The flaw could be superficial — something that, outside of the context of ROCD, wouldn’t merit a second thought.
These obsessive thoughts and questions then lead to obsessive behaviors.
A person struggling with ROCD will seek reassurance that their anxieties are unfounded. For example, if you’re concerned that you aren’t “good enough” to be with your partner, you may repeatedly ask them — potentially, several times a day — if they feel like they “deserve better,” or request that they tell you that you are in, fact, good enough to be with them. You may also feel an urge to get your friends’ and family’s perspectives on the subject as well.
An individual experiencing ROCD may also seek other forms of validation, from taking online quizzes and reading self-help books to setting up scenarios that “test” their partner’s affection. “They are looking for certainty about how they feel. It can be helpful to focus on the facts and values you share vs. feelings, which may rapidly change from moment to moment,” Dr. Albers states.
These behaviors — when they get the intended result — will give a person with ROCD temporary relief from doubt and confusion. The key word there is, of course, “temporary.”
It’s common for people living with ROCD to try and measure themselves, their partners, their feelings and their relationship against others. The impulse to draw comparisons will look different from person to person, but common examples of this thought pattern include:
- Comparing a current partner to previous partners.
- Comparing a current relationship to other peoples’ relationships, previous relationships or even idealized relationships — the kind we read about in books or see on television.
- Close examinations of a partner’s interactions with other people.
- Fixating on feelings or characteristics and how they change (or don’t change).
If you have doubts or anxieties running on a loop in your head — or you can’t help but fixate on the things you don’t like about your partner — your sex life probably isn’t as fulfilling as it could be. If you find it hard to enjoy or be present during sex, it could be a sign that relationship OCD is impacting you.
Social media behavior
As you might imagine, social media can exacerbate symptoms of relationship OCD. In fact, obsessive use of social media is the behavior Dr. Albers sees most frequently in people living with ROCD. Many of us feel compelled to check social media throughout the day. The behavior Dr. Albers is talking about is more serious.
“Far and away, it’s the easiest way for me to tell that it’s happening,” Dr. Albers says. “If someone is repeatedly spending hours on their social media and dissecting why their partner liked this or didn’t like this — why they’re friends with this person and what on their profile they liked — it might be ROCD.”
What is the treatment for relationship OCD?
ROCD isn’t a diagnosable medical condition, but obsessive-compulsive disorder is. If what you’ve been reading is resonating, it’s a good idea to see a psychologist to determine whether or not you have OCD — or any other diagnosable mental health condition. These are some of the common treatments for relationship OCD:
- Therapy techniques. The two most common forms of therapy for relationship OCD are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and CBT that includes exposure with response prevention therapy (ERP). People with OCD use this technique to practice responding to the things or situations that trigger their anxiety — and resisting the urge to engage in compulsive behaviors to soothe it. If you’ve been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or if it’s determined that your obsessive-compulsive thoughts and behaviors are triggered by trauma, a specialist may suggest eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EDMR). This form of mental health therapy uses adaptive information processing (AIP). AIP is a therapy that helps rewire the neural networks that store and process trauma, facilitating healing
- Keeping a journal. Dr. Albers encourages people with ROCD to keep a journal. “I have them write down when and what is prompting the thoughts or the fears and if it’s OCD-related. Typically, there’s an outside stressor happening that is likely linked to these thoughts,” she explains. “There may also be a pattern to the type of thoughts or the type of compulsive behavior.”
- Checking in with others. It can be hard to distinguish between ROCD anxiety and genuine relationship issues. Dr. Albers suggests enlisting the help of somebody you trust and who understands the dynamics of OCD. “Other people can double-check for you, help you decide if this thought is OCD, or if these are some real concerns that you should be paying attention to,” Dr. Albers explains. A person who’s aware of how OCD plays out in their brain will recognize that these fears and thoughts are a symptom of OCD rather than typical relationship concerns.
- Medication. If behavioral interventions aren’t enough to keep your symptoms in check, your provider may want you to consider medication. “It essentially helps the brain to stop looping around to the same thoughts,” Dr. Albers explains.
According to Dr. Albers, being in a relationship with and supporting a person who has ROCD can be difficult for several reasons:
- You may take your partner’s intrusive thoughts personally — especially if they’re fixating on your flaws.
- Your partner’s fears may start to trigger you to also question the relationship.
- Constantly reassuring your partner can be emotionally taxing.
- Your ability to engage in and enjoy sexual intimacy may be impacted.
But take heart! ROCD is treatable and — as Dr. Albers reminds us — “if the person with ROCD can contain and treat the obsessive-compulsive thoughts and behaviors, then it can really do wonders for your relationship.”
Here are some ways to help both you and your partner navigate ROCD:
- Educate yourself. Understanding your partner’s disorder is the first and most important thing you can do, according to Dr. Albers. That’s because it makes it easier to recognize that your partner’s fears are less about you and more about the OCD. “When you have an education, you have a framework to be able to say ‘this is not a real insecurity — this is a symptom of a mental health issue.’ Being able to separate that out can help you to protect your own feelings,” she explains.
- Identify your worries. If you absorb your partner’s anxieties, you may find yourself questioning the relationship. It’s helpful to identify your concerns — we all have them from time to time — and keep them conceptually distinct from your partner’s.
- Set boundaries around reassurance. Boundaries are an important part of any romantic relationship. When your partner is living with ROCD, it’s often necessary to set limits and boundaries around reassurance. What does that look like? Dr. Albers suggests saying things like, “I will reassure you X times a day and then it’s up to you to reassure yourself or seek some help around it.”
- Empathize with your partner. ROCD is hard. Your partner doesn’t want to have these thoughts. And they’re exhausting on many levels. Getting help for the condition can also be taxing. “Think about how difficult it would be to have obsessive-compulsive disorder,” Dr. Albers suggests, adding that “Empathizing can go a long way in the relationship.”
- Consider couples therapy. Couples therapy offers a great opportunity to help both you and your partner better understand ROCD, how and why it’s triggered, and any underlying emotional issues contributing to it. It’s also a safe place to discuss any intimacy issues you may be experiencing as a result of ROCD.
You can have a healthy relationship with somebody who has ROCD. In fact, supporting them through the difficult process of getting help may even strengthen your bond.
What about breakups?
It’s a fact of life: Many of the romantic relationships we have don’t last a lifetime. So, what happens to a person living with ROCD when a relationship ends?
Some find it hard to let the relationship go.
“It may be an extensive process to be able to stop thinking about the relationship,” Dr. Albers notes.
But it’s often the case that the obsessive thoughts will move on to something else. “The fixation transfers on to either another relationship or something completely different,” she says.
The bottom line
Relationship OCD is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. In ROCD, the repetitive thoughts center around a romantic partner or relationship. These anxieties compel the person with ROCD to seek reassurance that their partner or relationship is stable and “right.”
Untreated, ROCD can be debilitating, not to mention damaging to the relationship around which it’s focused. Luckily, there are many treatment options available — and the process of getting help can actually deepen the relationship.